Chapter 10: The February Attack
I: Plans and Dispositions
AT this point, as our narrative reaches 17 February, we must refocus our view on a larger scene. The plan of the Indian division was no isolated effort but part of a concerted corps offensive, and the action of the New Zealand Corps has a setting in the fortunes of the Fifth Army.
On the morning of the 16th, having massed the strength of six divisions, the German Fourteenth Army opened a counter-attack intended to eliminate the Anzio bridgehead and recognised for what it was by the Fifth Army. Diversionary pressure on the main front became urgently necessary. The Corps’ offensive had been envisaged as far more than a mere demonstration or containing action, but now it could serve a double purpose. Its original aim had been defined in General Freyberg’s corps operation order of 9 February.1 Slightly modified, the Corps’ intention was now to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido and Gari rivers to permit the deployment of armour in the Liri valley. The Indians were to capture the high ground west of Cassino, including Monastery Hill, and to cut Route 6 at the foot of the hill, while the New Zealanders were to make a bridgehead across the Rapido in the area of the railway station. This was the first phase of an operation which it was hoped would gradually develop momentum in four stages.
In the second phase the tanks of American Task Force B, with 21 New Zealand Battalion in support, would cross the second water-line, that of the Gari, and consolidate a bridgehead south of Route 6. In the third phase the task of New Zealand infantry and armour (the fresh troops of 4 and 5 Brigades) was to wheel south from the bridgehead to capture Pignataro and Sant’ Angelo from the flank and mop up enemy resistance on the west bank of the Gari to enable new bridges and routes of advance to be opened up. Finally, the westward advance up the Liri valley would begin, New Zealand and American armour (Task Force A) with infantry support moving
by bounds to invest the system of defences which the Germans were known to have prepared across the valley on a line Piedimonte San Germano–Aquino–Pontecorvo.
Such were the plans when at last on the night of 17–18 February the two attacks could be synchronised. After days of baffling delays and disappointments, Freyberg was understandably concerned – ‘calm but preoccupied’ – about the night’s event. His personal aide and a visiting journalist both noted his anxiety, and that night he slept in his clothes.
To the best of his ability the enemy was braced to meet the coming attack. Since early in the month he had never ceased to worry about the safety of the Cassino sector. On the 5th, General Senger had decided to leave 90 Panzer Grenadier Division in charge of this part of the front because of General Baade’s unrivalled knowledge of the terrain rather than to relieve it at once by 1 Parachute Division. Baade’s command was reinforced by fresh battalions, which were thrown into the line as soon as they arrived with scant regard for the symmetries of text-book organisation, until finally it was a checkered coalition of units from seven different divisions – clear testimony, if any were still needed, of the Germans’ ability to survive by makeshift.
Senger was so sure that his danger lay between Cassino and Monte Cairo that he strengthened his defences there by gravely weakening quieter parts of the front over the protests of his divisional commanders, and at the calculated risk of local Allied penetrations and new crises and of denuding the corps of all reserves. On the 15th he appreciated that ‘the enemy has now regrouped his forces for another major attack on the key-point of the Gustav line, the Cassino massif’. The Allies’ position only a few hundred yards from final success there, the movement of their infantry reserves, the day’s bombing and the increasing effectiveness of their observed shellfire all pointed to the imminence of a large-scale attack. The next day Senger was expecting this attack to coincide, for diversionary purposes, with the German effort at Anzio. All steps had been taken to meet the contingency.
Though finding no indications of a frontal assault across the water barrier, Senger anticipated that one would follow success at Cassino. He thought it probable that a fresh infantry division was waiting in the Casiline plain to exploit a break-through. A report to corps on the 17th that engineers were bridging the Rapido backwater can only have confirmed an assessment that was, on the whole, remarkably perceptive. The Germans, then, were mentally prepared.
Their material preparations appeared rather less adequate, but no one was more aware of the deficiencies than Senger himself. His most pressing anxiety was shortage of infantry. Against fourteen battalions much below the average strength of Allied battalions, he estimated that the enemy had twenty-six in the vital sector and he doubted whether his troops could hold out against another big attack. Casualties and the severe weather were causing a daily wastage of the equivalent of about a battalion, compared with two to two and a half a day in heavy fighting. Exhaustion resulting from the rigours of mountain warfare, insufficient supplies and equipment and lack of relief was increasing, especially at Cassino, where the garrison had been exposed to fourteen days of continuous high-explosive and phosphorous shellfire. Lacking infantry, the corps could not hold positions in depth and had to fall back on linear defence. The artillery counted only 51 pieces against a not inaccurately estimated 292 on the Allied side. Gun ammunition was either short at the dumps or came up from them far too slowly for want of transport. On the 16th, for example, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division artillery had ammunition for only two hours’ full-scale fighting. Whether or not spuriously darkened to give point to his plea for help, the picture in Senger’s summing up is certainly gloomy.
If the enemy decides to concentrate his artillery, air and infantry in co-operation on a few deciding points (Cassino, Montecassino, Albaneta Farm, Colle Sant’ Angelo), he will probably succeed in his aims. The Corps is no longer able to reinforce the line in the Cassino massif without outside help.
The holding of the Gustav line depends on the holding of the last line of heights, which is now in our hands. If this line is lost the situation will be most critical, as there is no other suitable prepared defensive position behind it. The holding of the Gustav line is ... a basic point of general policy in Italy. The line cannot be held unless infantry and artillery reserves are placed under Corps command as soon as possible.
Senger asked Tenth Army for a fresh division, reinforcements to bring existing formations up to full strength, more battalions of paratroops, heavy artillery, machine guns and, as soon as possible, the transfer of the Luftwaffe’s weight from the Anzio front.
The troops in the line between Cassino station and Colle Belvedere when the New Zealand Corps attacked included fourteen infantry battalions, two companies of tanks, part of two nebelwerfer regiments, an assault gun battalion, four batteries of field, one of medium and one of heavy artillery, and a battalion and a company of anti-tank guns. Opposite the New Zealanders, Cassino station and town were manned by 211 Regiment (Major F. W. Knuth), with two battalions of its own and a third from 361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and the Montecassino-Albaneta sector of the Indian front was in the hands of 1 Parachute Regiment (Colonel Schulz), comprising
four battalions – two of its own, one of 3 Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Machine Gun Battalion.
Reconsidered in terms of infantry actually engaged in launching or repelling the assault, the odds against the Germans almost shrink away. At those points in the German lines which it had chosen to breach, the New Zealand Corps was far from being able to bring to bear a crushing weight of numbers. In the initial heave that was to topple the enemy defences, the Indians enjoyed a superiority in battalions of perhaps four to three, while the New Zealanders fought numerically on about equal terms, so narrow were the attackers’ avenues of approach. The gate was strait and in the event the scroll would be charged with punishment.
The Indian plan for the night of 17–18 February was for 7 Brigade, reinforced by one battalion from each of the other two brigades of the division, to make a double thrust, each by two battalions. At midnight 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, with three companies of 1 Royal Sussex under command, having overrun or bypassed Point 593, was to advance about 1000 yards along a ridge to Point 444, 300 yards or so from the north-west angle of the monastery buildings. Two hours later 1/2 Gurkha Rifles and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were to pass through 4/16 Punjab Regiment in position on Points 450 and 445 to assault the monastery ruins directly from the north, and then to exploit down the hill to bring Route 6 under small-arms fire.
All that could be done was done to help the Indians on to their objectives against the vigorous defence that could be expected from the paratroops. The Anzio bridgehead had first claim on air support, but shortly before dusk the abbey was accurately bombed. Artillery preparation was hampered by the proximity of the forward infantry, but the Indians that night shared with the New Zealanders the support of nearly 500 guns, including not only those of the New Zealand Corps and 2 United States Corps but also of such French and 10 Corps guns as lay within range. On the Indians’ front concentrated shellfire was directed at likely enemy forming-up places and the German artillery was subdued as far as possible by the heavier calibres.
When the preliminary bombardment began, flares in unusual numbers lit the sky from the monastery south to Sant’ Angelo. They hinted that the Germans were alert, and the night’s fighting left no doubt. On the right 4/6 Rajputana Rifles fought at close quarters from midnight until 3.30 to capture Point 593. By then they had lost many men and all but two of their officers, the enemy fire was
still devastating, and it proved impossible to clear the forward slopes for the advance to Point 444. Indeed, Point 593 itself was still contested in a hand-to-hand struggle that abated only when daybreak compelled the Indians to consolidate on the ground they held. On the left the night’s work was no less grim and hardly less disappointing. Even for Gurkhas the precipitous cleft separating their starting line on Point 445 from the monastery was made all but impassable by vicious, thorny scrub throat high which tore at their clothes and equipment, and by an enemy who fired or threw grenades from emplacements at unexpectedly short range. Two companies of 1/2 Gurkha Rifles, suffering fearful casualties, had been thinned out to a pitiful remnant when the order came to withdraw. Reports that some Gurkhas had penetrated to the abbey were, and remain, unconfirmed.
Now that both thrusts were held up, it was decided to send the force on the left to take the objective originally assigned to the right-hand force. The reserve company of 1/2 Gurkha Rifles and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were therefore directed to cross the valley from Point 450 to seize Point 444. This mission was carried out in the face of fierce resistance, and soon after dawn four companies of Gurkhas were established within 300 yards of the monastery – the nearest approach the Indians are known to have made. But Point 444 was overlooked from the west by the Germans higher up the ridge on the southern slopes of Point 593; and from the east by those in the rubble of the abbey. A dash for the abbey by daylight would have been suicidal and to avoid fruitless casualties the Gurkhas were ordered back to Point 450. Wounded men left in the scrub on Point 444 were carried back the next night.
By 1 p.m. on the 18th 7 Brigade had shot its bolt. Its battalions were digging in on the reverse slopes of Points 593 and 450, still within hailing distance of the enemy. Point 445 had been abandoned on the calculation that a position only 400 yards from the monastery walls and 200 feet below them was too costly to hold. Four hundred dead among the Indian battalions were reported by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, a figure that most probably represents their total casualties.2 The Germans themselves admitted to the loss of seventy, including the commander of the fighting troops on Montecassino. Their success among the hills is to be attributed to the skill and tenacity of first-class infantry, well sited and well protected in terrain of overriding natural strength. Gunfire had little part in driving off the Indians. The German artillery, after concentrating on the hill sector, later switched to the Rapido, and had in any case exhausted its meagre stocks of ammunition by 4.20 a.m.
Freyberg was under pressure to renew the direct attack on the monastery. On the morning of the 18th, when told by Fifth Army of the critical turn of events at Anzio, he remarked that ‘we must do our damnedest to make a diversion here’; and that afternoon he put to Dimoline the disadvantages of pausing to reconsider the plan of attack. Dimoline, however, strongly opposed another immediate bid for the monastery. He recurred to the problem inherent in the siting of the defences in the Cassino promontory. A series of mutually supporting posts extended in a horseshoe eastwards from Point 575 to the monastery, and to attack without first subduing the westernmost strongpoints was simply to enter a pocket where fire poured in from all sides. Three battalions were needed to secure the existing line and another brigade to make a wide sweep to roll up the defences from the flank. After careful consideration, Freyberg agreed that the Indians should pause to reorganise on a two-brigade front.
Meanwhile, on the drenched flats south-east of Monastery Hill the New Zealanders prepared for operation avenger. Their prime object was, as it were, to peg out the Cassino railway station and the ground immediately north and south of it so as to hold the enemy in Cassino town at bay while armour and supporting infantry were passed along the railway embankment across the Gari and out into the Liri valley. So long as the peg was inserted and held firmly in place, the operation could probably prosper, even though the Indians should fail to seize the monastery. In this indispensable preliminary the difficulties crowded thickly, but the crux of the problem is easily stated. Flooded approaches prevented the deployment of more than a small force of infantry, and the need to repair numerous breaches in the embankment entailed a race to bring up heavy weapons in time to sustain the infantry against the almost inevitable counter-attack. And if the peg were to be knocked out, the plan would collapse.
Once a river crossing farther south had been rejected,3 the Division had to accept the disadvantage of assault on a narrow front. It was contrary to the New Zealand practice in Africa, where attacks were launched on the widest front that the guns could adequately support. In flat, open country fire from the flanks made it difficult to consolidate and reinforce narrow penetrations; and even in the closer and more rugged terrain of Italy the Division usually preferred to hit the enemy on a front of at least three battalions.
Still, in this case the Division had the warrant of historical analogy and of present example. The analogy that Kippenberger had in mind was the tactics that had won Badajos in the Peninsular War
and similar fortresses. While the defence was distracted by feint attacks, a breach was made (or more than one breach) and reserves were poured into the hole. The example was that of existing divisions which had attacked successfully with single battalions and of the Germans’ predilection for the stab rather than the broad blow.
And it was hoped to simulate a broad attack by bringing supporting weapons well forward, whence they might keep the garrison of Cassino passive and impressed.
The vital assault role, as we have seen,4 was allotted to the Maoris
of 28 Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Young divided his front between A and B Companies. Setting out from Demolition 1 and crossing the Rapido by the causeway, they would fan out on their taped start line, a lane running south from the railway just beyond the river, with B Company on the right and A Company on the left. The companies would advance at 9.30 p.m., each on a 200-yard front. B Company had two successive objectives – the first the railway station and a large crescent-shaped engine shed known as the Round House, and the second a group of houses 300 yards north-west of the station in the fork of two roads leading into Cassino. A Company was to capture the ground for about 300 yards south of the Round House, the most prominent feature of which was the group of black hummocks. Distances were short: no more than 800 yards for the forward platoons of B Company and hardly 400 yards for A Company. Communication would be by wireless alone, and the wireless silence in force since 12 January was therefore to be broken 30 minutes before zero hour.
The objectives were to be shelled first by heavy and medium guns and then by all available field guns until the infantry advance had been in progress for ten minutes. Counter-battery and harassing fire for two hours after zero hour would complete the prearranged artillery programme. Special targets were also found for machine guns and mortars. Farther south, 24 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry were to fire heavily across the river during the attack, and after dawn they were to make smoke to screen the newly-won ground. The whole fire plan was intended not only to soften opposition on the objectives and to quieten the enemy in Cassino itself but also, as noted, to disguise the vulnerable want of breadth in the front of attack.
In close attendance on the infantry, the engineers were to bridge the main stream and a tributary of the Rapido and to repair four other demolitions in the railway line with bulldozers. It was hoped that they would be up to the station with an open road behind them before dawn so that 19 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin) might carry out its task. The regiment was to have a squadron in the station by daylight for defensive purposes, and then by way of exploitation was to send the rest of its tanks to clear the southern outskirts of Cassino without penetrating too deeply into the town and to be ready to climb the zigzag road up Monastery Hill to help the Indians. In this early exploitation 19 Regiment’s tanks would be accompanied by part of 23 Battalion. All going well up to this point, the Division would then put into effect its further plans for exploitation over the Gari and into and up the valley, with Rome ahead.
II: The Maoris’ Action
At 8.45 p.m., hard on the opening of the artillery programme, the two Maori companies left their assembly point on the laborious tramp to the start line. Though it was only about 600 yards away, the Maoris arrived damp and dirty. They had had to plod through the mud of the causeway and flounder across waterlogged fields and through an exasperating system of drains. B Company was further delayed in getting past the engineers and their piles of equipment on the causeway, and it was after 9.30, zero hour, when the company left the start line. The night held a series of unpleasant surprises. Late in starting and slowed down by the heavy going, the Maoris now found that they were advancing across fields sown with mines, and before long mortars and machine guns on the lower slopes of Montecassino and the southern edge of the town began to range on them. Men began to fall to the fire and the mines, and the returning trickle of stretcher-borne casualties became a stream. B Company, which had suffered badly on the minefields, took an hour to reach the entrance to the station yards and A Company was moving scarcely any faster.
In the light of flares, B Company saw its way into the yards barred by new wire, with two posts dug in behind it. Closing in, 12 Platoon wavered for a moment before a particularly violent burst of machine-gun fire, but there was an immediate response to Captain Wikiriwhi’s5 call for a charge. As though in training, two men threw themselves on to the coiled wire, and those following leaped over and went to work with bayonet and grenades. The posts were cleared out, and with the dannert wire cut and the rest of the company coming through the gaps the ruins of the station building and the Round House were soon seized from their rugged defenders, men of III Battalion 361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
It was now about midnight, but further advance would be difficult so long as the machine guns firing from the outskirts of Cassino remained untroubled. To trouble them medium and field guns opened an uninterrupted fire, and under its protection B Company resumed its progress towards the houses of the second objective. Now that the first belt of wire and machine guns had been pierced, resistance eased perceptibly, but as the Maoris neared the houses short rounds falling among them inflicted losses and forced them to take cover in the station. Here they rounded up scattered Germans and began to dig in. After coming forward about 3 a.m. to survey the situation,
Lieutenant-Colonel Young directed B Company again on the houses. One platoon crept close, but finding them strongly held lay low with the intention of rushing them as soon as A Company had seized the hummock and drawn level on the left.
But the time never came. All this while A Company had been held at bay at the foot of the hummock by an obstacle more formidable than had appeared from the air photographs – a swollen creek twenty feet wide and covered by wire and mines. Watchful and accurate machine-gunners ensconced on the hummock made every movement perilous. There was nothing to do but keep up a running fire on the Germans while exploring for a route round the flank. None could be found.
By 6 a.m. the moon and the breaking day were beginning to expose both companies more dangerously than ever. To an inquiry for directions, General Kippenberger replied with instructions to the Maoris to stay forward. The houses and the hummock, which between them covered the approach to the Gari, would have to be left for the time being, but the GOC reckoned that the chance, however slight, that the Maoris might hold their gains was worth the risk of casualties. These he hoped to minimise by the use of smoke.
Certainly the success of the Maoris had as a prerequisite the success of the engineers. But it was a frustrating night along the embankment and critical delays defeated the engineers’ plan to open the road to the station before daylight, though only by the narrowest of margins. Sapper tasks were divided between 8 and 6 Field Companies. The former was to bridge the two branches of the Rapido and to repair the demolition between them, and the latter was to work farther forward, from Demolition 8.
The programme lagged from the outset. The 30-foot bridge over the Rapido backwater was almost built by 8.35 p.m., but the platoon working on it retired when the first artillery concentration fell on the station and on resuming work it was hindered by the passage of the Maoris on their way to the start line, and then by the launching of the attack. In the upshot, instead of being open by 9 p.m., the bridge was not open until 11.15. The engineers were then two hours and a quarter behind the clock and the loss of time was never made up.
Meanwhile, in the rear a tide of waiting sappers began to dam up in a procession of unalterable sequence – first the minesweepers, then the bulldozers, and finally the bridge-builders’ laden trucks. However, in view of the delay in the first bridging operation, parties went forward on foot, sweeping for mines and breaking down the sides of demolitions as far forward as Numbers 8 and 9. With the first bridge open, four bulldozers went to work on Demolition 6 between the two arms of the Rapido, but it was 1 a.m. before the
first truck could pass and nearly another hour before the bridging material reached the main stream of the Rapido (Demolition 7). Here for two hours and a half 8 Field Company worked under intermittent showers of small-arms and mortar fire, some of it from Germans who sniped from a boat farther up the river; but at 5 a.m. – over five hours late – the bridge was up and the Rapido was no longer impassable to traffic.
Unfortunately it was futile to send tanks and other supporting weapons across because work beyond the river was not far enough advanced to allow them to be usefully employed. Bulldozers, bypassing Demolition 7, had filled the next three breaches in the embankment, and Second-Lieutenant Higginson6 had crossed the wire to reconnoitre Demolition 11, which he reported could be repaired by a bulldozer. German mortar fire, however, prevented the bulldozers from following up the reconnaissance. The way to the station was therefore still barred by Demolitions 11 and 12 and no vehicle could hope to find a detour across the quagmire beside the causeway. The unbridged gap was no more than 300 yards.
Since about three o’clock the moonlight had been a boon to German marksmen and enemy interference reached a climax at 5.45, when a sudden burst of mortar and nebelwerfer fire along the whole embankment killed three of 6 Field Company’s men, drove the rest to cover, and threw the work into disorder. At the order of the CRE the parties withdrew to await the effect of the smoke screen. But the mortaring continued so heavily that the smoke was judged to give inadequate cover and the engineers rejoined their companies. Except for a reconnaissance of Demolitions 11 and 12 by Second-Lieutenant Brown7 of 8 Field Company, the engineers’ work was done for the day. The three killed were their only casualties in the action.
Now came the Maoris’ time of trial. The sun rose on 18 February at 7.6 a.m. and set at 5.47 p.m. For nearly eleven hours between first and last light – if worse did not befall – the two companies, now weakened by about fifty casualties, could expect to face the fury of the enemy with nothing to defend them but the weapons they carried, the fire of the artillery, and an undependable pall of smoke. Tanks and heavy weapons could not now reach them until after dark. In the station they occupied a salient half-circled by enemy defenders in Cassino, on the lower slopes of Monastery Hill and on
the hummock, and they were overshadowed by the scowling eminence of the monastery ruins. The Germans manned the western environs of the station in strength and, though visibility was less than 100 yards, they could be seen moving about in the haze. Encouraged by their success in defence and at the same time warned against a convergence of the two attacks, they were determined to prevent the blockade of Cassino. It was essential to recapture the station by nightfall, before the New Zealanders could throw in reserves. Therefore, as 14 Panzer Corps reported to Tenth Army, ‘we are trying to get it back with everything we have’. While the higher commanders, Kesselring and Vietinghoff, were prepared for bad news, the divisional commander, Baade, never wavered in his confidence. Given the replenishment of his gunners’ precarious ammunition supply, he believed he could seal off the breach with the troops on the spot and then regain the station.
The German counter-pressure began punctually after sunrise. At 7.15, covered by the fire of an elusive tank, a force was seen forming up at the southern edge of Cassino. It was probably of three platoons hastily assembled from 211 Regiment’s headquarters, engineers and reserves from the town. If so, its career as a combined force was brief, for the second of two artillery concentrations called for by the Maoris fell among the Germans as they formed up, caused casualties, and broke up the counter-attack. But the respite was only relative. The single tank was not only ominous of others to come but its continual fire was troublesome enough without prognosticating more. A small aircraft was sent up to observe and eventually the tank was engaged by medium guns. Machine guns and mortars mainly on Monastery Hill, fired incessantly and parties of infantry tried to close in on the station. The Maoris had no retort but to ask the artillery for a thickening of the smoke screen, which a brisk southerly wind was dispersing too quickly, and for concentrations of high explosive.
The Maoris were indeed isolated. About 10.15 Lieutenant-Colonel Young again asked for a denser smoke screen to blot out observation from Montecassino while a platoon from C Company reinforced his weary and depleted companies in the station and the wounded were evacuated. But the reinforcing platoon had hardly crossed the Rapido before it lost twelve men from the hail of shells, mortar bombs and bullets that greeted its intrusion into the battle and it was unable to reach the station. Moving in the opposite direction, the stretcher-bearers also suffered casualties.
It was now past midday. The Maoris were still cheerful and their high spirits spread upwards through their battalion commander to Kippenberger and Freyberg, both of whom treasured the prospect
that soon after dark the last gaps in the embankment would be repaired and the waiting armour would be able to pour over the river and expand the bridgehead to safer dimensions.
A crisis of supply arose. Kippenberger had to decide whether to concentrate on shelling the German positions and leave the Maoris comparatively open to observation or to obscure them by maintaining the smoke screen at the risk of providing cover for a surprise German counter-attack. He chose the second course as likely to be cheaper in human cost; but the insatiable demand for smoke, as Brigadier Weir warned, rapidly consumed the limited supplies at gun positions and in nearby dumps. At the urgent request of the Divisional Commander, transmitted through Brigadier Crump, 1 Ammunition Company acted without delay. From Teano, where Garibaldi laid his conquests at the feet of Victor Emmanuel, a convoy returned loaded with the green shells to feed the guns, and the smoke screen never failed. More than 9000 rounds of smoke were fired during the day by 4 Field Regiment, with occasional assistance from the other field regiments and the American artillery. The smoke canisters lit by 5 Brigade’s defence platoon, 24 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry, and the smoke bombs fired by two 4·2-inch mortars of 21 Battalion added usefully to the protective fog, but a proposal for the dropping of smoke bombs from the air was rejected because it was too late to change the bomb loads on the aircraft.
The early afternoon brought renewed signs of German impatience. A movement which the enemy seems to have rated as a counter-attack was seen shortly before two o’clock, when troops crossed the Gari by the railway line and approached close to the Maoris in the station. At the same time two tanks moved into Cassino from the south-west. Such activities as these prompted the Maoris to ask for continuous gunfire until dark on Montecassino and the southern end of Cassino. This fire, intensified at the request of the infantry, staved off another threat a little later when the tanks nosed tentatively towards the station.
By mid-afternoon 90 Panzer Grenadier Division had committed its last local reserves in support of 211 Regiment, which planned to recapture the station by a pincer movement of infantry attacking from the south-west and tanks from the north. This final effort began about 3.15, under cover of heavy fire from guns, mortars and machine guns. The infantry, coming along the railway line, were too close to be engaged by artillery. The two tanks, reported to be Shermans, were halted for a while on the road from Cassino by an artillery concentration, but they came on again irresistibly, forcing their way into the station yards.
The Maoris were helpless. They had neither tanks nor anti-tank
guns with them. Caught by the point-blank fire of the tanks, B Company’s foremost platoon was overrun. The survivors of the two companies escaped from the station and struggled wearily back under parting volleys which cost them more casualties. As their wireless touch with battalion headquarters had failed during the fighting, the first news of the rout was their arrival back across the Rapido at four o’clock. All were utterly exhausted; many were suffering concussion from the crackling inferno they had just left. Out of a force recently 200 strong, they numbered 66 – 26 from B Company under their sole remaining officer, Second-Lieutenant L. T. Crapp, and 40 from A Company, temporarily under command of Second-Lieutenant Christy.8 A few stragglers remained to come in. At seven o’clock Major Henare led back the remnants of A Company’s headquarters and last of all came Captain Wikiriwhi, who, being unable to walk, dragged himself across the river the next day.
The final count of casualties among the two companies put them at approximately 130, of whom more than 20 were killed, about 80 wounded, and 24 missing or taken prisoner. The enemy paid quite as heavily. Nineteen Germans were reported killed and 102 wounded in the station on 18 February, and during their attack the Maoris sent back 18 German prisoners.
In retrospect it is tempting to dismiss the failure of operation AVENGER as inevitable by definition; for it may be defined as an attempt to penetrate the glacis of one of the strongest fortresses of Europe by two companies of infantry with a diversion against the well-nigh unassailable keep. Good strategic reasons existed, no doubt, for General Alexander’s directive of 11 February that New Zealand Corps should begin operations without delay to clear the entrance to the Liri valley, and these reasons drew fresh emphasis from the enemy pressure at Anzio; but the fact remains that the strategy frittered away troops in a series of premature and small local operations which had little chance of tactical success. The Maoris, in short, were sent on a forlorn hope.
However persuasive at first flush, the argument needs examination. For one thing, the daunting prestige of the Cassino bastion is largely due to the failure of these very operations and others which followed. Cassino was less renowned then than it is now. Moreover, the margin of failure was by no means spectacular. The railway station was retaken only by releasing ‘the last possible reserves’ – the words are those of the panzer grenadier division – from other sectors
of the division’s front. Had they been beaten off until after dark, the New Zealand bridgehead over the Rapido might have been transformed radically for the better before the next day. Speculation must draw rein here with the comment that this was a possibility that had occurred to the Germans as well as to the New Zealanders.
Finally, the operation appeared plausible to reputable military opinion. The tactical feasibility of the Rapido crossing was thoroughly reviewed by the corps, divisional and brigade commanders during the planning and much time was devoted at commanders’ conferences to details of the exploitation. Opinions varied as to the likelihood
of success. There were some reservations about the effect of an Indian failure on Montecassino, but on the whole it was estimated that a bridgehead over the river could probably be held if it were consolidated in sufficient width and depth.
These hopes may perhaps be waved aside as chimerical, but what is to be said of German fears? In his plea for reinforcements on the 15th, when the New Zealanders were looking forward to a change of tempo and to armour rolling track-free down the Liri valley, General Senger gave no indication that he believed his corps front to be impregnable, but quite the contrary. The fact that he could deduce his enemy’s intentions with such insight shows them not to have been ridiculous; and to him they certainly seemed only too realistic. On the 12th the capture of the monastery from the hills above Cassino appeared practicable to General Keyes, who spoke out of the American experience: ‘We feel that it is a matter of fresh troops, more troops rather than the difficulties that are found up there’. But if the attack on the monastery was a reasonable operation, one would be inclined to argue that a fortiori the attack across the Rapido was reasonable. At least there is evidence that the Germans looked on the New Zealanders’ threat to the station more seriously than the Indians’ threat to the monastery.9 Thus when reserves became available, it was to relieve 211 Regiment in the station area that they were directed. And it is perhaps not an over-refinement to draw a similar inference from Kesselring’s carefully graduated eulogy of the defenders: ‘Convey my heartfelt gratitude to 211 Regiment, and to 1 Parachute Regiment not quite so strongly,’ he told Vietinghoff. ‘I am very pleased that the New Zealanders have had a smack in the nose. You must recommend the local commander for the Knight’s Cross’. Kesselring’s thankfulness after the event rings no less true than Senger’s alarm before it. As it happened, New Zealand hopes were dupes and German fears were liars, but that is no reason for supposing that the New Zealanders carried hope to the point of foolhardiness any more than that the Germans allowed fear to sink into despair.
If this argument is sound, the reasons why the battle ended as it did may be examined. They may be summed up by saying that the attack had to be made against an enemy of high quality holding dominant positions from which he could use his great fire-power to prevent supporting weapons or reinforcements from reaching the forward troops. The narrowness of the front, no more than 400 yards, incurred a double disadvantage – few troops could be deployed, and the enemy could concentrate his fire on what he
knew to be the only means of approach. The widening of the front by a simultaneous river crossing farther south, say in the area of Sant’ Angelo, was fully considered. Even a local failure might have diverted enough fire from the railway to allow the engineers to clear a route to the station, and a success might have withheld enemy forces from the counter-attack against the Maoris. But the hazards were deemed too great. The swiftly-flowing Rapido was thickly mined on both sides and a crossing was bound to be opposed by troops who were known to be dug in on the far bank, and who could not be effectively neutralised by artillery or small-arms fire. The limited resources of trained engineers and bridging equipment would have to be divided between the two attacks, and it was questionable whether the men and material could be spared to build the tracks necessary to sustain the southern crossing. Similarly, if Montecassino remained in German hands, provision would have to be made for the screening of two bridgeheads by smoke. Finally, failure or partial failure would be tantamount to leaving a force isolated and unsupported west of the river, where it would pay heavy penalties, even if it escaped extinction.
The Maoris were pitted against excellent troops. The reputation of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division as one of the most improved German formations in Italy was firmly upheld by 211 Regiment. The Germans stood imperturbably against gunfire and infantry assault, vexing the Maoris with casualties and delays until they could deliver the final blow. Posts that resisted the attack or lay beyond its reach never let their fire slacken, and the Maoris were harassed relentlessly. By General Freyberg’s admission, the converging counter-attack that carried the station was ‘a well-executed operation’.
The skill of the defenders was matched by the strength of their defences. To the natural advantages of steep hills, the Rapido and the mud, artifice had had time to add deep shell-proof dugouts in the rock and armoured pillboxes, to set complex traps of wire and mines, to demolish all the approach routes and to contrive awkward inundations. To move forward along the causeway, with the impediments of wire, mines and water under hostile eyes on Monastery Hill, as 28 Battalion had to do, was like walking a tightrope in a shooting gallery. The Maoris’ predicament was the worse because every inch of the ground was covered by crossfire. In spite of, or perhaps because of, distinctly meagre artillery support, the German infantry’s fire plan was well co-ordinated and allowed them to deluge the bridgehead with fire from three sides and to deny supporting weapons access to the battle. This was a significant achievement, for it put the tired Maoris at the mercy of an armoured counter-stroke and proved, more than any other single fact, to be decisive.