Chapter 12: The March Attack: Break-in
I: 15 March
THE bludgeon of air power descended upon Cassino town punctually at 8.30 on the morning of 15 March. As they swept across the blue sky toward the target, the medium bombers of the first wave were watched intently by Allied soldiers who had climbed to vantage points and settled down with binoculars to absorb a sight that they expected to remember for the rest of their lives. In the comparative safety of the hills around Cervaro the picnic atmosphere was indecent but irrepressible. Here, after many days, was the spectacular promise of release from boredom and deadlock. In the next few hours a whole town would shudder to destruction before one’s eyes.
Below the aircraft the northern part of Cassino was empty. The forward troops of 24 and 25 Battalions had been coming back since 3 a.m. and were now at a safe distance in the reserve areas north of the town, save for three volunteers manning an anti-tank gun near the quarry on Caruso road. Their going had been unnoticed by the Germans, who went about their business without suspecting that the bombers overhead were the first of about 500 and their freight a foretaste of the 1100 or so tons of 1000-pound high-explosive bombs loaded for delivery in the town.
From his command post at Cervaro, where he had the company of Generals Alexander, Clark and Eaker, General Freyberg watched the aircraft strike home. ‘Flashes of flame from bursting bombs leaped from the buildings and from the slopes above the town, explosions reverberated through the hills and shook the ground under our feet,’ he wrote later. Trembling under the shock of the first attack, Cassino was momentarily lit with the flame of detonation and then became shrouded in swirling eddies of smoke and dust that soon hid it from observation. A continual ripple of air rose from the town and drifted across the sky above the Liri and Rapido valleys. The bombers followed, wave on wave, the mediums in superb tight formation, the heavies more raggedly. Mistiming
occurred in some groups, but it was exactly at midday, as planned, that the last group dropped its bombs squarely into the centre of confusion. None who saw it will forget the terrible one-sidedness of the spectacle: there was an insolent meting out of punishment as the great bombers, unwavering and impeccable, opened their racks upon the suffering earth. The sky had been swept clear of enemy fighters and the bombers were unchallenged except by a nest of anti-aircraft guns south of the Liri, which fired ineffectually as the attackers wheeled away from the target; and even this fire was silenced half-way through the morning.
It is estimated that 50 per cent of the bomb load fell within the confines of the town. Near misses scattered some bombs on Montecassino and many on the river flat east of the Rapido. Still less precise and more costly was the aiming that dropped bombs in our own lines. Casualties rising to as many as twenty in a single regiment occurred in British, American and New Zealand artillery areas; fifty men were hit in 4 Indian Division’s B Echelon in the upper Rapido valley and forty at a Moroccan military hospital. Some attacks at various points between Venafro and Isernia were wildly astray. One complete group mistook Venafro for Cassino, two towns more than ten miles apart but similarly placed in the lee of high hills. One hundred and forty civilians were left dead or wounded. The main offenders were the heavy bombers, whose inaccuracy in aim and timing was shown to be due to several causes – poor air discipline in two new groups, faulty bomb racks, lack of specific aiming points and the obscuring of the target by smoke and dust.1
Whatever its other shortcomings, the bombing lacked nothing in destructive effect on the town; in that opinion there was unanimity. Already battered from weeks of siege, Cassino was now utterly laid waste. Not a building stood intact. Those not directly hit were unroofed and shaken to their foundations by the blast. Upper stories collapsed over ground floors and basements, toppling down bricks and mortar, tiles, girders, lumps of concrete, wooden beams, plaster walls. Cratered and buried under mounds of debris, streets lost their identity in a wilderness of whitish-grey rubble, and parks and open spaces became wastes of torn earth and bruised and uprooted trees. What remained was less the semblance of a town than a desolation open to the sky, with here and there a solitary wall rising above the tumbled ruins.
The effect on the German defences was more equivocal. No men could fail to be dazed by the ferocity of such an attack sustained over three hours and a half, but the casualties were not everywhere proportionate to the material damage. Weapons in the open or under
light cover were mostly destroyed, and sometimes the violent rearrangement of matter cut them off from their crews. Undoubtedly there were heavy losses among troops inadequately protected. But many men in the garrison, by taking refuge in basements and concrete shelters, survived with nothing worse than a few split eardrums, a thorough dusting and a bad scare. Portable steel pillboxes designed for two men were crowded by as many as six and gave effective cover, though at times tossed about in the tempest.
Prisoners’ reports varied: some were surprised to learn that other Germans had been taken alive in the town; some had only private experiences to relate as they crawled out of the wreckage just in time to be captured; some reported more chaos than casualties and soon recovered their composure. More Germans seem to have died in the northern part of the town than in the south and west, where, on the rising ground, stouter dugouts had been built. Here the defenders shook off their stupor and were again at their posts, the cocky members of a corps d’élite, before the New Zealanders could get at them. Their resilience was a measure of paratroop toughness. What flesh and blood could withstand they withstood. It was General Alexander’s opinion that no other troops in the German army could have endured such a hammering.
At midday, as the last aircraft turned for home, the artillery took up the bombardment. As displays of destructive majesty, there was little to choose between the clean sweep of silver wings as the earth erupted beneath them and the stabbing flashes and rippling fortissimo of drumfire from the massed artillery. Suddenly Monastery Hill was pimpled with the grey puffs of exploding shells. In the town the fires were stoked again and more remnants of cover were brought crashing down.
Under such an umbrella, the assaulting infantry of 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff) approached the town along Caruso road at a brisk walking pace. It was a small band to be so resoundingly heralded. The lead was taken by B Company (Captain Hoy), on the right, and A Company (Major Sanders). They moved in single file, followed by the tanks of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment. Leaving the rest of the battalion in a quarry north of the town, they pressed on into Cassino under the cover of the barrage and smoke screen and had no difficulty in regaining the old forward positions. But beyond the line of the jail a challenge awaited them.
Where they had hoped to find no life, rifles and machine guns started up, troubling them from the slopes of Castle Hill and the heaped ruins on the flat. Soon the attackers were dissolved into small
groups of infiltrators, now separated, now reunited, by the flux of the fighting. Nothing went according to plan. At one o’clock communication with battalion headquarters failed, and for the rest of the afternoon the wireless link was silent. Nor could runners get through: all three who were sent back became casualties, and those sent forward by C Company (Lieutenant Milne),2 established at the jail, failed to find the leading troops. The two companies lost touch with the tanks and before long with each other. But they knew they had to keep working southward, with the mountain on their right.
This was not a simple progress. At the best of times a contested advance through a town is a staccato sequence of pauses under cover and dashes for fresh cover. Here in Cassino such cover as remained was still mostly in enemy occupation. The way forward to the next breathing space lay over ground that slowed down infantry and exposed them to short-range fire. They had to plunge down cavernous craters up to sixty feet across, scramble over piles of debris or find a way round, get on through churned mud and keep direction under the pall of smoke whose protection alone made advance possible.
The fighting ardour of the German paratroops was roused. Now that they had their enemy at close quarters on ground they knew and had prepared, the terms of combat had turned dramatically in their favour since the morning. They gave ground sparingly and at a price. Fighting closed to hand-grenade range. Mortar bombs fired from Montecassino and the railway station area fell among the New Zealanders; nebelwerfers tossed up their fearful cascades of bombs; and finally from about 3.30 German guns in the north began to take the northern end of the town under heavy fire. The New Zealand Corps artillery meanwhile prolonged its fire on the final line of the barrage, 400 yards south of Route 6, for nearly an hour and a half beyond the scheduled time, but even when it ceased at 3.30 it was still too far ahead of the infantry to shield them effectively.
In the western part of the town, where the streets had been narrow and the building most congested, B Company found the prescribed rate of advance – 100 yards in ten minutes – far beyond its reach. As it tackled the obstacles in its path, it was harassed by a steady crackle of small-arms fire from the right flank. Some infantrymen edged away into the middle of the town. At two o’clock the company was still no farther ahead than the nunnery. It had gone about a hundred yards in the last hour or more. By mid-afternoon its movement was more perceptible, but having reached the shelter of a school it was held there by weapons on Castle Hill.
It was still no more than half-way through the town, and at least 300 yards short of its objective.
On the left, A Company made a little more headway. Before one o’clock its leading platoons reached the nunnery. They pushed on slowly southward and it was 3.30 before they had fought their way to the northern branch of Route 6. Here the right-hand platoon swung right towards the mountainside, but a hundred yards along the road fierce opposition halted it amid ruined buildings for the rest of the day. Farther east along the same road, headquarters set themselves up in a building which, from sheafs of unused stamps, official forms and telegraphic equipment, they identified as the Post Office. Working through a more open part of the town, the left-hand platoon actually reached the objective at the point where Route 6 was intersected by a road that bounded the town on the east. These men entered a convent at the crossroads but failed to dislodge a party of Germans who were sharing the same abode. Large as the convent was, it was too small to contain both parties with comfort to either. The New Zealanders could make no further ground, they could not be supported and they were in danger of encirclement. Major Sanders therefore recalled them toward company headquarters, reluctantly giving up a base from which a flank attack on the untaken part of the town and the advance to the railway station in the second phase might have been mounted.
At dusk, then, the infantry in Cassino seemed to have spent their force. B Company had gone to cover half-way through the town. A Company was somewhat farther forward, holding a line for about 200 yards along the northern branch of Route 6 with a swarming nest of spandaus formidably close on the right flank. Back at the jail and the nunnery C Company had been attempting for some hours to relay messages between the forward troops and battalion headquarters, but without success. A and B Companies indeed were in touch with each other, but there was no regular contact with the tanks. A small reinforcement – B Company 24 Battalion (Major Turnbull) – was on its way, but it was to be midnight before it reached A Company and settled in nearby. In a last effort to help 25 Battalion on to the first objective, the artillery again fired on the last line of the barrage from 5.30 to 6 p.m. and then concentrated for quarter of an hour on the railway station area in the hope of subduing enemy mortars. No inch of ground was gained. When night fell all thought of advance was given up.
Consolidate was the order at dusk [wrote Lieutenant Milne]. In the maze positions were sorted out, with men milling about, stretcher bearers getting out the wounded and shells falling all over the place. No supplies could be brought in but luckily each tank had carried ammunition, even primed grenades, so there was no shortage.
The tanks meanwhile had been fighting a separate battle. The plan of a cohesive stroke of infantry and armour was one of the first casualties of the bombing. Nineteenth Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin) ordered B Squadron (Major Leeks)3 to escort 25 Battalion on to the first objective, quisling, whereupon A Squadron (Major Thodey)4 was to lead 26 Battalion on to the second, Jockey. The assault guns of 392 Self-propelled Battery (98 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery) were under 19 Regiment’s command to give close support.
Unlike the infantry, the tanks tried two routes forward – Caruso and Parallel roads – but one of the leading troops found the latter impassably cratered and all had to use the Caruso road approach to the town. The other leading tanks, those of 7 Troop, were balked for a while by a bomb hole in Caruso road, but found a detour which enabled them to enter Cassino about one o’clock, already half an hour behind the infantry. It was all to no avail: rubble at this entrance absolutely forbade the troop to continue south under the slope of Castle Hill, and there it stayed.
The tanks found, as the infantry had done, that the left flank was slightly more yielding. Here 8 Troop threaded a mazy way round ragged skeletons of buildings, then nose down into pits and nose up over heaps of rubble, like a flotilla headed into a stormy sea After explorations on foot and behind a screen of smoke from C Squadron in Pasquale road, the troop by two o’clock reached the boundary road east of the nunnery. Ordered to push south-west, Major Leeks went ahead on foot and called for sapper help to clear a path. But the engineers who were standing by outside the town were prevented from entering by the riflemen on Castle Hill, and the tank crews, though harassed from the same direction, set to work with pick and shovel at the urgent bidding of their commanding officer. They succeeded in driving on a short distance and, for the first time, in giving direct support to the infantry by engaging enemy posts in the area of the convent. But the road ahead was barred by another crater. Coming up behind, 5 Troop manoeuvred on to the eastern boundary road and moved south along it, on 8 Troop’s left. After 400 yards this troop too was baffled by great holes torn in the road. While looking for a bypass, Leeks was wounded by a rifle bullet. Major McInnes5 came forward to replace
him with orders from Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin to ‘keep cracking’.
Such an order was wholly in keeping with the spirit of the plan but it was beset with all vexation. The squadron which McInnes inherited was now dispersed: one troop, the 6th, had not even forced a way into the town, 7 Troop was halted near the Caruso road entrance and the other two were held up each on a different road, about 200 yards short of the northern fork of Route 6. The help they could give the men on foot was limited by ignorance of the forward infantry positions and by lack of liaison – the only contact was on the ground, and it was at best intermittent and always dangerous. Enemy shelling was troublesome. Even less welcome was the too close support of American fighter-bombers: some bombs fell uncomfortably near the forward tanks, and others blocked the road behind them. Major McInnes’s reconnaissance towards Route 6 convinced him that further armoured advance was at present impossible. Having so reported, he was sent forward again to explore the ground round the Botanical Gardens between the two branches of Route 6. On this mission he was wounded, and the squadron passed to Lieutenant Carey.6
It was obvious that a way would have to be blasted or swept by bulldozer. But when McGaffin again asked for help, the engineer detachment found the shelling too severe to get into the town. Its bulldozer, unarmoured, bulky and obtrusive, was a sure magnet to attract angry metal. Nothing was left now but to face the tanks head-on to the obstructive rubble and charge it. McGaffin gave the order. With grating tracks, roaring engines and much metallic wheezing, the tanks bucked and bounced at the obstacles, but none surmounted them and a few wedged themselves immovably. The tank attack came to a stop.
Not only did three troops of tanks stand foiled or immobilised within Cassino, but tanks even more numerous banked up outside, having searched in vain for admission. Two troops of C Squadron approaching along Pasquale road, were directed into the town during the afternoon, but they were defeated by the Rapido. The regular crossing the engineers could not repair because of the small-arms fire from Castle Hill and the shelling, and no other crossing could be found. So these two troops had to be content to sit on the far side of the river and retaliate with their fire upon the defenders of Castle Hill. When McGaffin first summoned the engineers, he ordered A Squadron with an attached troop to accompany them. Five more troops thus joined the queue, so that there were three at the Caruso road entrance and four behind the Rapido – until,
before dark, most of them were recalled from their fruitless errand. The bombing may have won surprise but it blunted the very weapon intended to exploit it.
To the grim tale of frustration within Cassino events on Castle Hill (Point 193) furnished a shining contrast. The capture of this eastern promontory of the Cassino massif, from which the Germans throughout the afternoon had all but dictated happenings in the town below, was the assigned task of D Company 25 Battalion (Major Hewitt). The company fought a brisk, resourceful action. Since the western outskirts of the town had not been cleared, it turned off Caruso road and up the slope of the mountain, approaching Castle Hill along the ravine to the north. While the rest of the company moved round the eastern foot of the hill, 16 Platoon worked south until it was below Point 165, the northernmost hairpin bend on the road to the abbey. From this point a rocky saddle extended a hundred yards or so to the stone fort that gave Castle Hill its name. About one o’clock the platoon began to scale the almost vertical cliff. Its climb was unopposed. Two Bren-gunners covered the rest of the platoon as it appeared over the crest and rushed a nearby house, which disgorged two prisoners. The Bren-gunners then lighted upon a pillbox containing an enemy company headquarters and, after exchanging machine-gun fire and hand grenades, forced twenty-three Germans to surrender. The platoon occupied Point 165, but when it advanced on the fort from the west, machine-gun fire from the west wall sent it to earth and kept it there.
Help came, though not at once. The other platoons, edging their way round the eastern foot of the hill, ran into resistance on the fringes of the town and were pinned down until about three o’clock. Having killed, dispersed or discouraged their assailants, they made their assault straight up the hill. There was no trouble until they neared the summit. Then, as 17 and 18 Platoons made toward the fort, a small party of Germans fired a few bursts and retired through an archway to the inner courtyard. They were soon brought to reason. After occupying the ruined tower of the fort, the New Zealanders had only to silence a single spandau in the courtyard and by 4.45 the fort was firmly in their hands, along with twenty-two prisoners.7 About nightfall, 16 Platoon was called into the fort from
Point 165. This whole spirited episode cost the company 6 killed and 15 wounded.
Though it was important to know the situation on Point 193, so that as long as necessary the enemy on the hill might be kept under fire, news of the success was slow in reaching those who controlled the guns. It came finally by one runner from the fort to company headquarters at the foot of the hill and thence by another to battalion headquarters. The relief of D Company by the Indians was so much the longer delayed; and this delay was the capital deposit that grew by compound interest as the operation proceeded.
Behind the spearhead of 25 Battalion and 19 Armoured Regiment, the heaviest work in the first few hours of the battle fell upon the artillery. Most of it was prearranged – the barrage by 88 guns, the timed concentrations by 262 guns and the counter-battery bombardment by 72 guns in New Zealand Corps, together with the guns of 10 British Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps.8 At some points the original fire plan had to be amplified. The final line of the barrage, as we have seen, had to be repeated three times (each of fifteen minutes) before 3.30 and again for half an hour at 5.30. The concentrations on German strongpoints had to be thickened up, particularly on the slopes of Montecassino and Castle Hill and in the town south of Route 6. The Germans lay so low, where they were not at close grips with our own troops, that the amount of shooting on opportunity targets was negligible. The corps counter-battery fire was effective against the enemy guns on its front, which had been accurately located and which fired little, if at all, during the afternoon. The nebelwerfers were much more of a nuisance, in spite of a constant patrol by air OPs; yet they were by no means left in peace, and one nebelwerfer regiment lost 81 out of 88 active barrels during the day from our observed gunfire. The shellfire that troubled troops in the town came from the guns of 5 Mountain Division in the sector of the French Expeditionary Corps. Presumably because they were sited in deep mountain gorges, these guns had not been pin-pointed, and even if, according to plan, the French had blinded the enemy observers on this flank, they could still fire by prediction. Fourth Field Regiment, detailed to screen activities in the town from Montecassino, had to increase its rate of fire because of a southerly wind that quickly dispersed the smoke and the screen had to be thickened from time to time by fire from the self-propelled guns of 98 Field Regiment and the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment.
The firing of smoke went on until six o’clock, when night laid the best of all screens.
The engineers passed a vexing and rather profitless day. Four companies, including two of Americans, were given an active role in the attack, but progress in the town was so slow that only one – 7 Field Company (Major White)9 – came into action before nightfall. It was placed under command of 6 Brigade to clear routes through Cassino from the north. The bulldozers, it was recognised, would have to do vital work, with the sappers clearing mines, blowing demolitions and using picks and shovels. One platoon under Lieutenant Faram filled craters on Pasquale road until it was open to tanks as far as the Rapido. Here the engineers demolished a stone wall and were using rubble to build a causeway across the dry riverbed when shelling and rifle fire closed down the work. First the bulldozer operator and then the men on foot retired to the security that smoke could not afford. The crossing was left unfit for tanks. A second detachment, under Lieutenant Budge,10 was to sweep a route through Cassino for the tanks but it was halted at the outskirts by rifle fire from Castle Hill, and here also the bulldozer driver had to quit his machine. Later orders to push through to the aid of the tanks proved futile. Even after nightfall, the utter darkness and the stubborn rubble-heaps so thwarted the two bulldozers working near the Caruso road entrance that the attempt to sweep a tank route had to be abandoned. During the day 7 Field Company had one man wounded.
The other fighting units of the Division either gave the support appropriate to their weapons or stood in readiness to exploit when the battle became fluid. Machine-gunners of 2 and 3 Machine Gun Companies, with targets on Monastery Hill and the southern edge of Cassino, added their bullets to the great opening bombardment. Other participants in the elaborate orchestration of the battle were 32 and 34 Anti-Tank Batteries, firing a mixture of high-explosive and armour-piercing ammunition from fourteen guns placed well forward. Fifth Brigade’s role in this first phase was to bring its support weapons to bear ‘as opportunity offers’, but it appears that only 28 Battalion actually helped the assault with its mortars and Vickers guns. The brigade’s main role was to exploit. Twenty-first Battalion moved up ready to accompany Task Force B across the river; 23 Battalion, which was to move with 4 Armoured Brigade, stayed in place; and 28 Battalion pushed one company forward handier to the railway station area, which it was to make secure after 26 Battalion’s attack.
When night came, it was a night of almost impenetrable darkness. The clouds that were to obscure the moon began their disservice by bringing rain. For hours after 6.30 it teemed down, chilling the forward troops to the bone and turning into ponds the craters that were already beginning to fill by seepage from the sub-soil. The rain and the darkness commanded a lull, and their coming closed one phase of the battle. It is an opportunity to review the day’s doings.
The battle was already seriously behind the timetable. According to the plan, objective quisling should have been in New Zealand hands by 2 p.m. By dusk 6 Brigade should have been lodged on the second objective jockey, well to the south of the town, and 5 Indian Brigade should have been established on Hangman’s Hill (Point 435). In reality, about 200 yards and obvious hard fighting lay between the most advanced troops and the first objective, and the Indians had not even begun to move along the face of Montecassino. Castle Hill was a valuable capture but within the town the infantry were not happily placed. One company was sheltering in a maze of ruins in the centre of the town; another, foremost of all, was being firmly resisted by an enemy hourly recovering poise and confidence and strongly fortified between the two branches of Route 6. The forward troops were under very imperfect cover; they were cold and wet through; there was to be no hot food for them that night; their spirits were indifferent; they were denied the reassuring attendance of armour. Nineteenth Armoured Regiment had battled gamely to burst through, but as the tanks could not have the aid of the engineers, the infantry had to do without the aid of the tanks. Communications to the forward companies were working poorly, so that even their locations were in doubt. Their wireless sets were damp and useless. For a brief period that night a telephone line was open to A Company but it was soon cut, and shelling and mortaring were heavy enough to discourage its maintenance. C Company alone remained in touch with battalion headquarters by telephone.
All through the afternoon the burden of infantry fighting had been borne exclusively by 25 Battalion, of whose four rifle companies one was in a reserve position. Casualties, it is true, had not been heavy – in the town 11 killed or died of wounds, 29 wounded, and 1 wounded and missing. Still, by four o’clock its inadequacy for the double task of capturing Castle Hill and clearing the town as far south as Route 6 was too obvious to escape notice. Quite apart from the evidence of slow progress, enemy riflemen were causing disorganisation out of all proportion to their numbers at the vulnerable
joints, so to speak, between mutually supporting arms. At this hour, Major-General Parkinson instructed 6 Brigade to put in more infantry. Having committed the whole of 25 Battalion, Brigadier Bonifant called for a company from 24 Battalion, which had spent the afternoon consolidating in its old forward positions. B Company set out at five o’clock. Before dusk, however, it was decided to reinforce more strongly. At 5.25 p.m. 6 Brigade gave the word of advance to 26 Battalion.
By this time it was clear that the effect of surprise had been lost. The corps’ intention now stood revealed – to extinguish all life in Cassino, drive through it from the north and flow round the headland as a prelude to armoured advance up the Liri valley. General Freyberg was already saying, ‘You must expect it to be slow’. A different type of battle was emerging, in which victory in the encounter phase might be so costly in infantry as to leave too few for the break-out and pursuit. It was beginning to look as if within the major premise of operation dickens there lurked two allied miscalculations – an underestimate of mind (for the survivors in Cassino were uncowed) and an overestimate of matter (for it was the collapse of bricks and mortar that foiled our tanks).
The German outlook at nightfall on 15 March was cautious but not despondent. It was rightly appreciated that Cassino was the only immediate object of the attack. This was matter for relief, but the fear was that 14 Panzer Corps would not be able to sustain a long battle of attrition.
The enemy tactics seemed to be modelled on those of Alamein [wrote the war diarist of the corps]. He was banking mainly on his superiority in equipment, and had so far committed a comparatively small force of infantry (estimated at two battalions). It was thought possible that the enemy might be able to gain a victory after several days by sheer weight of material. He would have to smash our troops to pieces first. Experience had shown that a major action would cost us a battalion a day. Corps had at present four battalions available (including recce units) to fill gaps in its front-line units.
If lack of reserves was the ultimate fear, the enemy had plenty of worries more pressing. The replacement of equipment was one. The opening bombardment from air and ground had destroyed eight heavy mortars, five heavy machine guns and several assault guns. The battered 71 Werfer Regiment had lost nearly all its barrels from gunfire controlled by air OPs, though for the time being they had been replaced by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division’s guns from the second line. The unremitting vigil of air OPs and the frequent air raids were almost crippling the artillery, especially
in the Liri valley. Within Cassino stocks of ammunition were precarious and supplies could only move along the roads by night. Anti-tank defence was regarded as quite inadequate. The German commanders were not confident that their requests for air support would be heeded.
None the less, the Germans found food for consolation. Their infantry had behaved admirably. Under the full shock of the bombing, II Battalion 3 Parachute Regiment had suffered casualties but had rallied to the counter-attack. Some groups of defenders, surrounded in the northern part of the town, had regained their unit, and morale was high. ‘With luck,’ it was thought, ‘the enemy can be pushed out by close-range fighting’. Now that the two sides were locked in close combat, the Allies could no longer safely bomb the short-range defences in the town. The onus of mechanical movement through the choked environs of Cassino lay on the Allies – in fact, the New Zealand Corps had seen only three German tanks all day – and it was no contemptible advantage to the defenders that the attack had to be brought to them. The weather was the Germans’ last reserve. ‘Rain would be even better than air support,’ General Senger told General Vietinghoff from his headquarters. By that time it was already pouring in Cassino.
The delay in the town caused a major revision in the plans of 26 Battalion. It was to have moved in the early afternoon, to have passed through 25 Battalion on Quisling and, with armoured support, to have seized Jockey by dusk. Now, however, its move was postponed till nearly nightfall, it was directed to make an attack for which a firm base did not exist, and it was unaccompanied by armour, for though the tanks of A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment had been ordered into Cassino three hours before, they could not follow the men on foot.
Led by D Company (Major Piper) the battalion entered Cassino at the Rapido crossing and, moving in single file, slipped and stumbled along the eastern edge of the town towards Route 6. It was a journey of tense anxiety through a waste land. Darkness soon closed in. At the head of the leading platoon, Second-Lieutenant Muir11 probed forward to follow the line of a road no longer easily discernible by day, expecting at every step to be challenged by enemy fire. Behind him each man clung to the battle dress ahead for fear of losing the column. No one was clothed against the rain that began to fall. The path, always devious, now became treacherous; men slid in the mud and blundered into great cavities. Damp wireless
sets faded and failed. The companies got on as best they could, blindly, in any order and ignorant of each other’s whereabouts. The quiet of the night was disturbed only by the noises of physical exertion, whispered colloquys, uncontained oaths and odd bursts from machine guns and mortars.
D Company was the first to reach the northern fork of Route 6. The time was about nine o’clock – it had taken three hours to travel the 650 yards from the Rapido crossing. Lieutenant Muir, still thinking of an immediate advance to the second objective, set off to scout for the road leading to the station. He left his platoon beside the shaggy walls of the Municipal Buildings, where it was soon joined by the rest of the company. From A Company 25 Battalion, whom he had located in the Post Office, Major Piper learnt the disappointing truth. He realised that the attack on the second objective was not yet practicable. By telephone he received instructions from Lieutenant-Colonel Richards that all companies should consolidate along Route 6 until the strongpoint to the west, which had already engaged the battalion, had been eliminated.
One by one the other companies appeared out of the night and sectors were roughly allocated. Two companies set themselves up along the northern branch of Route 6, an alley now bristling with infantry weapons. The two others went into or beside the Municipal Buildings, where they were separated from the enemy by a well stirred porringer of mud that had once been the Botanical Gardens. They seem to have made no attempt to occupy the convent where there had been a skirmish in the afternoon, though all four companies were close to it and though it was the most substantial building in the vicinity and offered the luxury of shelter under a roof only partly demolished. After a gruelling night of wrong turnings and delays, 12 Machine Gun Platoon arrived with its Vickers guns in the early hours of the morning and sited them in ruined buildings near the Post Office. Whatever its terrors, the night had not so far been costly in the number of casualties. Two had been killed – but one of them was Lieutenant Muir – and three wounded.
II: 16 March
The day of the 16th advanced the clearing of the town very little. The infantry made one local attack in an effort to renew the rhythm of the battle and restore it to its planned course, but when this had failed they fell back on the defensive. To move from the cover of a crater or a mound was simply to offer a target to the rifles and automatics of encircling Germans; to rush one enemy post was to
attract the fire of several others. The break-down of communications made it hard for the forward troops to act in concert and hindered the flow of information to, and of orders from, the rear. When orders did come they were as likely as not to be unrealistic. For example, to order supporting arms on to the first objective, as Division did at 6 a.m. on the 16th, was to command heavy weapons to be taken where individual runners could not go by day. The conduct of the battle passed effectively into the hands of company and even platoon commanders, while headquarters up to Corps itself reconciled themselves, by successive retractions, to the discipline of the achievable.
At 9.30 p.m. on the 15th 26 Battalion asked 25 Battalion to complete the capture of quisling, but it was past midnight before it was possible (for a short time) to speak to A Company 25 Battalion by telephone. Major Sanders was then ordered to join with B Company 24 Battalion in an attack westward to clear the enemy from north of Route 6. Brigadier Bonifant had given instructions for this to be done by night, but so great were the difficulties of co-ordinating and orienting an attack in the blackness of the night that Majors Sanders and Turnbull decided to postpone their efforts until dawn.
At 6.15 a.m. the two companies advanced on opposite sides of the northern branch of Route 6. On the right, B Company 24 Battalion was directed towards the part of the town under Castle Hill and told to link up with B Company 25 Battalion. On the left, A Company 25 Battalion was to wipe out resistance west of the Botanical Gardens in the area enclosed by the two arms of the road.
As soon as 11 and 12 Platoons at the head of B Company emerged from shelter, they were whittled down by machine-gun fire, losing three killed and seven wounded. They cleared one house, which yielded two prisoners, and made a lodgment in another that was better preserved than most of its neighbours. A jagged wall stood in the midst of desolation, and cover could be found in part of the ground floor. This 12 Platoon seized from parties of Germans, who were driven away with casualties. Beneath the new tenants, 11 Platoon got into the basement, where they spent an uncomfortable five hours in deep water until 12 Platoon dug a hole in the floor and helped them through. Though now isolated, the two platoons were ordered by Major Turnbull, during one of the fleeting intervals of wireless communication, to stay where they were. There they stayed for nearly twenty-four hours, beating off German raiders who invited them in English to surrender; but the next night they were recalled to the rest of the company. This attack, then, made little ground, and the few yards gained were given up.
On the left A Company 25 Battalion, with a platoon from 26 Battalion, had even less success. Immediately they stirred, the leading platoons were pinned down by fire from the strongpoint they were being sent to destroy. Enemy rifles, machine guns and mortars held them in subjection all through a difficult day. So it was with the rest of the battalion. No contact existed that day between 25 Battalion headquarters and any of its companies, except C Company at the jail, which was in touch by telephone. Runners and linesmen alike found every route through Cassino barred by enemy small arms
In form, 26 Battalion was waiting to have the first objective cleared as a springboard for advance to the second; in fact, there was little to distinguish its day from that of 25 Battalion. It had to suffer under the same squalls of German fire, it felt the same annoyance at being unable to hit back more effectively and it was as badly served by its communications. But it did have some armoured sup port, and, partly as a result, one success came its way. The convent on the south side of Route 6 was recaptured in the early afternoon. Under cover of bullets from nearby platoons and shells from one of 19 Regiment’s tanks which had approached along Route 6, two sections of 14 Platoon C Company dashed across 50 yards of open ground, entered the convent and drove out the Germans. Possession of this strongpoint (it was reinforced that night) removed a source of irritation and gave the New Zealanders the largest building and the best unprepared cover in that section of the town. Later in the battle it was to prove its usefulness as a control post.
Armoured assistance for the infantry in Cassino on the 16th was restricted, like so much else, by the difficulties of ingress. It was only through pluck and persistence that any arrived at all; and it was a judgment on the bombing plan that it came not from the north through the town, where the tanks were only a few hundred yards away, but from the east across the Rapido.
The tanks of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment at the north western entrance to the town and along the eastern boundary road could not improve their positions during the day. Though under continual fire themselves, they gave what support they could to the infantry at Cassino, but from lack of regular contact this was little enough. When the squadron was relieved by 11 and 12 Troops of C Squadron in the afternoon, it was found that only three of its tanks could move out of the town. Seven of them, stuck fast or damaged, had to be left behind in the charge of C Squadron until they could be conveniently recovered.
While part of A Squadron was withdrawn to the northern out skirts of Cassino to laager, squadron headquarters, 1 and 4 Troops stood by to enter Cassino from the east in support of 26 Battalion’s assault on the station. A reconnaissance by American tanks of Combat Command ‘B’ discovered craters on Route 6 and all four bridging tanks were put at A Squadron’s disposal12 Although the attack on the station had to be postponed Major-General Parkinson ordered 6 Brigade to call up the armour to help the infantry clear Route 6 through the town. Shortly before noon, therefore, 1 Troop (Lieutenant Morrin)13 crossed the Rapido by the Bailey bridge erected overnight by a company of 48 United States Engineer Battalion and drove on towards Cassino. About 150 yards short of the convent it was halted by the first of the craters and waited an hour for the arrival of a bridging tank. When the bridge had been partly laid across the gap, a shell destroyed it and damaged the lowering mechanism of the tank. With difficulty the tank dragged the wreck age out of the crater and backed away, while a second bridging tank came forward, carrying Second-Lieutenant McCormick14 and two of his engineers from 2 Platoon of 7 Field Company, who were to sweep for mines.
Meanwhile a junction had been made with the infantry. After failing once, Lieutenant Morrin on his second reconnaissance by foot located 14 Platoon of C Company 26 Battalion, which he helped by the fire of his tank to occupy the convent.
But back at the crater there was more trouble. This time the bridge tilted to one side when it was lowered over the gulf. It took an hour, some hard work by the engineers and tank crews and finally the pull of one of 1 Troop’s tanks to right the bridge. A third bridging tank then crossed and spanned another crater 100 yards ahead. The road to 26 Battalion was now blocked by only one more breach in the road, a few yards from the convent crossroads. The two leading tanks of 1 Troop made a deviation and by 3.45 they had joined C Company 26 Battalion by the convent. One tank of 4 Troop, which had been following up, also got through.
These three tanks brought some relief to the New Zealand infantry by engaging enemy posts at their request and, by transmitting messages by wireless, reopened the link between 26 Battalion headquarters and C Company. The sappers meanwhile made possible further tank reinforcement by repairing the diversion round the last crater and by sweeping the road for mines as far as the convent. This task was made easier by work done the night before by a
company of American engineers who had lifted Teller mines from the roadway and filled craters west of the Bailey bridge. The arrival of the tanks at the eastern end of quisling was the Division’s most encouraging achievement in a day of few and small successes.
Continued activity on Route 6 between the bridge and the convent was practicable only by night or behind a screen of smoke. Now and throughout the battle smoke-making was a main occupation of some infantrymen and gunners, and tank crews were often seconded to the task. Gun and tank shells, mortar bombs and canisters were used to generate a haze that would in particular blind observers on Montecassino and in the railway station area and obscure the Rapido bridge from hostile eyes anywhere. On this first full day of the battle, men of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and 27 Machine Gun Battalion humped the ponderous canisters across the Rapido and lit them from emission points on the exposed flats south of Route 6. The screen round the bridge was thickened by the fire of the 4. 2-inch mortars but as soon as noon approached, and with it the time of day when smoke was least protective, the guns of 4 Field Regiment switched to the same target, and finally the tanks of B Squadron 19 Regiment and the self-propelled guns of 392 Battery were called in. Even so, a freak of the wind would lift the curtain now and then. Not till late afternoon was it judged wise to slacken off the production of smoke. By that time the canister parties by the riverbank, whose location was accurately advertised by the thick white streamers curling from the smoke-pots, had drawn much of the enemy’s fire upon themselves.
Smoke was 5 Brigade’s main contribution to the battle on the 16th. Its role was still support of 6 Brigade, and when the attack on the railway station had to be postponed, the Divisional Commander followed up a suggestion of Brigadier Queree by ordering 5 Brigade to test its own impression that the station might be empty. D Company 28 Battalion supplied a patrol of thirteen led by Second-Lieutenant Smith15 and accompanied by a reconnaissance party from 8 Field Company. In the late afternoon, when the smoke was beginning to linger more protectively, the patrol crossed the Rapido and moved along the railway line into the yards. When 50 yards short of a belt of wire it engaged German troops, who made off into the railway buildings. On this alarm four German machine guns opened up from the yards and the hummock, wounding three New Zealanders, including the engineer commander,
Second-Lieutenant Whelan.16 The patrol withdrew, escorted, whenever there was a rift in the smoke screen, by bursts from machine guns and mortars. Plainly, objective jockey would have to be fought for. And from the engineers’ report it was apparent that the approach along the railway line was again closed to wheels, though the route was not mined: two bridges across demolitions would have to be replaced and three other demolitions needed attention.
For the engineers the 16th was another day of frustration. Each of the three field companies had been allotted an avenue of approach to the infantry objectives – the 7th the northern route through the town, the 6th (with 48 United States Engineer Battalion) the eastern route along Route 6 and the 8th the south-eastern along the railway line. A dawn reconnaissance, which cost a life, convinced 7 Field Company that no feasible route could be found and that it was hopeless to work in Cassino. Sixth Field Company stood by to await the southward thrust by 26 Battalion, and 8 Field Company returned to its camp, except for the small detachment which, as we have seen, tested the railway line. Overnight, however, a platoon of 6 Field Company under Major Loudon17 had the satisfaction of solid work far forward on Route 6. The tank scissors bridge over one crater was replaced by a treadway bridge and relaid over another, and a third crater was filled in. By dawn on the 17th, the tanks at the convent had a clear road behind them.
After firing a programme to help the infantry forward before dawn, the artillery spent most of the day on protective tasks- counter-battery, counter-mortar and smoke shoots. The German artillery reply was desultory and not very harmful. The mischievous nebelwerfers round Pignataro got themselves into trouble in the early evening when a retaliatory bombardment by the New Zealand field guns set off an explosion and a fire in their area; and when they came again toward midnight, they provoked a mighty counter-blast (on the scale of a hundred to one in weight of metal) that kept them quiet for the rest of the night.
Air support continued to be generous. The sky over the battlefield was filled for much of the day by aircraft of the Tactical Air Force, which made German gun and mortar positions in the Liri and Secco valleys their main targets. In all, 172 medium bombers, 24 light bombers and 126 fighter-bombers dropped 307 tons of bombs in 13 flights between about 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. Most bombs found their mark, but during the afternoon one wave of six mediums launched theirs fairly into 7 Indian Brigade’s administrative area round Portella and San Michele. Fifty men were killed or wounded
- 31 Indians, 12 Moroccans and 7 New Zealanders. Mules and vehicles were also lost. It was the latest in the series of distressing incidents that had to be accepted without protest to the air command as the price of close support. The air was never free during the day from Allied fighters on reconnaissance. They patrolled continuously over the enemy’s forward areas and at two-hourly intervals farther back. But Allied mastery of the air was not quite complete. At 5.50 p.m. 28 Focke-Wulf fighter-bombers swooped out of the dusk to make a low-level raid on the Bailey bridge over the Rapido on Route 6. The bombs fell wide, mainly east of the river.
For several hours on the 16th obscurity almost as thick as the smoke clouds that billowed and drifted about it surrounded the course of the battle on the eastern face of Montecassino. Here, against savage opposition, 5 Indian Brigade was trying to exploit along the hillside to keep pace with the New Zealanders in the town. The three battalions of the brigade were given successive objectives. Castle Hill and Point 165 were to be taken over from the New Zealanders by 1/4 Essex Regiment, which would hold the doorway for the rest of the brigade. First to pass through would be 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, directed on two bends in the road leading to the monastery, the northern at Point 236, the southern at Point 202. From this firm base, 1/9 Gurkha Rifles would move over the upper slopes to Hangman’s Hill, a knoll protruding from the stony hillside only three hundred yards or so from the south-east walls of the monastery. The final assault on the monastery was reserved for the Essex battalion and as many Gurkhas as could be spared.
From the beginning the plan fell behind the clock. There was delay in clearing the very threshold to the Indians’ battlefield. Because of rain, darkness, steep going and enemy interference, the Essex battalion’s relief of D Company 25 Battalion, timed originally for 7.30 p.m., was not complete till after midnight, and as late as 3 a.m. on the 16th the Englishmen were still fighting for Point 165. So unsure was our hold on the doorway that General Freyberg contemplated cancelling the exploitation, but decided to let it go on in the hope that the prize of Montecassino would yet fall to a sudden thrust.
The next stage in the plan went awry. When the Rajputana Rifles at last advanced about 3 a.m., already depleted by enemy fire, the two companies sent to capture Point 202 were soon scattered. They disposed of some German posts but could not reach the southern bend of the road and fell back, under heavy fire, toward
Castle Hill. The other companies made ground uphill toward Point 236 and engaged the enemy at close range. This road bend, giving vital command over the Castle Hill area, seemed almost within their grasp until shortly before dawn, when casualties, some of them inflicted by our own artillery, caused them to withdraw. The Rajputana battalion was now dispersed and disorganised, its headquarters was out of action from casualties and its losses had been heavy.
This failure ahead of him confronted the commander of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles (Major G. S. Nangle) with what proved to be a fateful choice. He had either to hold back his battalion or send it forward over intermediate objectives probably not yet cleared. He paid his men the compliment of choosing the bolder course and despatched two of his companies towards Hangman’s Hill. One early fell into an ambush, losing fifteen men in a minute to Spandaus. The other, C Company, under Lieutenant M. R. Drinkhall, melted away into the night. Dawn revealed a brigade thrown into much disarray by the night’s work. The Essex battalion and two companies of the Rajputanas had a firm grip on Castle Hill and Point 165. The other Rajputana companies were scattered in disorder on the edge of the town. Three Gurkha companies lay in some sort of defensive line behind the castle. Lieutenant Drinkhall’s company was missing.
Later in the morning figures were dimly descried moving round the rocky ledge of Hangman’s Hill. In the early afternoon, a faint wireless message confirmed that they were the survivors of Drinkhall’s company, set squarely where they had been ordered to go. They had been on their narrow platform since just before dawn. Their ascent from the castle area had been an astonishing feat. Lieutenant Drinkhall had led his platoons, under plunging fire from the hillside, unerringly round craters, over hillocks of debris and between gaps in ruined buildings south through the western outskirts of the town. Then he had struck uphill, always skirting German strongpoints which he knew to be unsubdued, and reserving his men for the contest that would be needed to clear his own objective. By the time he reached the foot of Hangman’s Hill, parts of his company had strayed; but he did not wait for them to come up. With his leading platoon commander and one rifleman, he climbed the crag, flushed the surprised Germans from their defences with grenades and small-arms fire and seized the hill. When the last platoon toiled to the top, it found Drinkhall going about the task of organising his company on its precarious perch. The Gurkhas had dwindled sadly in numbers, they were all but encircled by the enemy in well-prepared posts not far away and their lifeline back to the castle was extremely tenuous, if it could be said to exist at all.
They settled down to take the drubbing which is the enemy’s tribute to a successful stroke of daring. This isolated lodgment, clearly to be seen by anyone in the Allied lines who cared to scan the grey hillside, now helped to shape the Indians’ battle. Its reinforcement became a main preoccupation of 5 Indian Brigade.
The night of 15–16 March brought forth another exploit on the mountain. An engineer officer, Lieutenant Angus Murray of 4 Indian Field Company, and Sergeant Morris18 of 20 Armoured Regiment were ordered forward with the attacking troops to reconnoitre a tank route to the top of Montecassino so that C Squadron might help the Indian brigade in the exploitation. To these two belongs the distinction of penetrating farther behind the German lines than any other Allied soldiers at Cassino. After being held up by shellfire, they set off at 5 a.m. for Point 202, whence they turned downhill to explore routes between there and Route 6. They worked south as far as the amphitheatre at the corner of the valley mouth, but as they returned north they were overtaken by daylight and found themselves in an area populous with Germans. In a building where they took shelter from our own shelling they became embroiled with a small party of the enemy. Sergeant Morris was shot dead, but the officer killed several Germans and in the scuffle made his escape. He outran his hosts, dodged the bullets they aimed after him and reached safety at Point 193. His report was that Montecassino was impassable for tanks except by the road.
For the Indian brigade on the bare, boulder-strewn slopes or on the outskirts of the town, the 16th was a day of endurance rather than of achievement. The infantry on Hangman’s Hill and Castle Hill fired and were fired at from short ranges intermittently all day. It proved impossible to win Point 236. Further attacks were postponed until after dark
So much had gone amiss in the execution of the plan that it seems natural to conclude rather than to preface a description of the 16th by a reference to the reactions at Corps Headquarters. Early in the day, the intention was to adhere to the original plan of a New Zealand attack on jockey to synchronise with an Indian attack on the monastery, followed by a tank thrust up Cavendish road to the rear of the monastery. The time was to be mid-morning, but when this became clearly impracticable, a conference at 9.30 postponed it until two hours before nightfall. It was not the last postponement. The failure of the New Zealand tanks to get through earlier and the impossibility of working across the face of Montecassino
by day imposed another. The 17th was now appointed for the Indian bid for the abbey and for the New Zealanders’ effort to clear quisling with tank support and then to assault jockey.
The effect of surprise had now quite expended itself; and the 16th saw inexorably at work a law of diminishing returns. The attack was in danger of stagnation. The day’s record did not reveal the New Zealand Corps as the force in real command of the battle, nor did the day bring fresh illuminations or inspire new initiatives. A conference at 6 Brigade at 6.30 p.m. prescribed for the morrow the dose as before with a stiffening of iron. After reorganising itself overnight, 25 Battalion should attack again next morning with the same objectives, but this time with the support of A Squadron 19 Regiment. Thereafter, quisling having been cleared, 26 Battalion would seize the railway station and, on brigade orders, 24 Battalion the area of the Colosseum. From Brigade upward high store was set upon the ability of the armour to break the incipient deadlock. Yet no more than nine tanks were fairly within the town. Of these six were certainly, and the other three probably, incapable of further advance until bomb cavities had been filled and rubbish removed from their path. But Brigadier Hanson was complaining that his sappers could not work very usefully until the infantry had made room for them: they could improve the road behind the tanks but they could not break the barrier in front of them. So the vicious circle closed again upon the infantry
Three battalions had been thrown against the defences on Montecassino, but in the town only two battalions and one company from a third had been committed. Though perhaps two-thirds of the built-up area of Cassino was in our hands, resistance on the rising ground in the south-west, which had a hard core in and around the Continental Hotel, was a serious hindrance to 6 Brigade’s designs on the railway station objective. The strengthening of the infantry had been suggested. In the morning the Army Commander advised pouring more infantry across the Rapido bridge, but General Freyberg thought he had plenty in the confined area of the town; and in the evening Major-General A. Galloway, who had assumed temporary command of 4 Indian Division, remarked that he was ‘completely convinced that the best way to clear Cassino is to put infantry in and go on doing so until it is cleared’.
The Germans meanwhile were tolerably satisfied with the progress of the battle: at least irretrievable disaster had been staved off. Senior officers were forward encouraging their men. When General Senger went to 1 Parachute Division battle headquarters on the
afternoon of the 16th, he found that General Heidrich had gone into Cassino, where he had been with the fighting troops since the action began. The fear of a repetition of the previous day’s air assault clearly emerges from a telephone conversation that day between General Vietinghoff, at Tenth Army, and General Westphal, Marshal Kesselring’s Chief of Staff.
Westphal: Do you think Cassino can be held indefinitely?
Vietinghoff: I can’t tell yet. Senger thinks that if he were to turn on another air attack to-day like the one yesterday, our men would be helpless. Everybody was dazed by that bombardment, and before they could snap out of it the enemy was into them. ...
Westphal: The enemy has reported that it was impossible to maintain troops in the town because of the German snipers.
Vietinghoff: That is very good indeed. ... But Senger told me the aircraft had a terrible effect.
Westphal: I bet you are glad you had the paratroops there.
Vietinghoff: Yes. ... The paratroops will hold on best. ...
Material reinforcement was promised to the forward troops in the form of Ofenröhre and Faustpatronen,19 and 15 Panzer Grenadier Division was to lend some armoured vehicles to carry supplies and wounded. Senger also agreed to transfer to the parachute division III Battalion 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which would release I Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment on Colle Sant’ Angelo for service in Cassino, where it would fight on familiar ground and beside familiar units. This reinforcement was only a stopgap and there would be an anxious time until a more substantial draft was received. The crisis would come soon. In fact, the Germans expected on the 16th that ‘the enemy would make a supreme effort next day to capture the ruins of Cassino’. In the enemy reading of the battle, then, the 17th would be a day of destiny.